Last month, in my role as chairman of Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, I was one of several people invited by members of the New York City Council to testify in support of a resolution condemning all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel, including the global campaign promoting the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The resolution was sponsored by Bronx Councilman Andrew Cohen (D-11th) and co-sponsored by 34 other council members.
The Conference of Presidents Task Force on BDS has been at the forefront of coordinating a cohesive response to this issue for several years, and I believed I had a good understanding of the destructive anti-Israel ideology underlying BDS and the often reprehensible tactics of its proponents.
My experience at the City Council hearing brought home to me, on a very personal gut level, just how easily proponents of BDS engage in vile expressions of hatred toward Jews cloaked in pseudo-political criticism of Israel and Zionism.
It was clear from the outset that pro-BDS sympathizers had turned out in force for the committee hearing on the resolution. They carried signs into the hearing room equating Zionism with racism and shouted out approval when the first speaker, who opposed the resolution, accused Israel of “atrocities,” “crimes against humanity” and “intentionally” murdering “500 Palestinian babies.”
While acknowledging their right to express their views, the chair of the meeting called on the spectators to act with respect and implored them not to disrupt the hearing.
Despite numerous pleas from the chair of the hearing, the protesters would not stop, and the sergeant-at-arms was instructed to eject individuals who were disrupting the proceedings. Eventually, an entire section of the spectators’ gallery had to be removed by uniformed security personnel.
When I was called on to present the remarks I prepared in support of the resolution, I was immediately subjected to abusive insults from those in the audience deliberately trying to stifle my testimony through verbal harassment.
What should have taken no more than five or six minutes to conclude took more than twice as long. As I began my remarks by identifying myself as chairman of the Conference of Presidents, I was repeatedly shouted down by spectators spewing vulgar anti-Israel slogans and vile, hate-filled anti-Jewish epithets, in what was clearly an organized and purposeful effort to silence my comments in favor of the measure.
When this behavior continued, I put aside my prepared remarks and told the council members I was grateful to them for inviting me to testify, because for the first time I was exposed to the unrestrained hateful verbal and physical intimidation and abuse our children and grandchildren have to deal with on campuses throughout the country. It was truly an eye-opening experience.
I was a federal prosecutor in the early part of my career. I prosecuted members of organized crime, bank robbers and many other dangerous individuals. At no time throughout that part of my life was I ever the target of the kind of pure hate directed at me and my colleagues by the disrupters at this hearing.
The police would not even permit us to exit until they first cleared the corridor and then escorted us to our car. One of my colleagues, a pregnant Jewish woman, was verbally and physically abused as we left the hearing room. I was fearful for her personal safety.
The mob-like groups under the guise of advocating for a change in Israel’s policies, disregard the boundaries of acceptable discourse and show unrestrained contempt for those who disagree with them. Their conduct clearly poses a physical danger to those who advocate for Israel or openly display their Judaism.
It is now abundantly clear to me that the work we at the Conference of Presidents, along with our 53 constituents, do to combat the horrific expressions and intimidation tactics of the BDS movement is critically essential to the well-being of the American Jewish community.
I am certain we will prevail in the long run. In the meantime, I worry more than ever about my college-age grandchildren, who, unlike their grandfather today, are without police protection.This day is seared in my memory.
Stephen M. Greenberg is chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.